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Big Idea, Uncertain Reception
The FutureBook Conference plenary was in an upbeat late-afternoon mood.
Abbie Headon, managing and commissioning editor at Summersdale, had stepped forward during the Big Ideas session to recommend we all remember the value of "people power."
Her earnest and soft-spoken appeal -- the phrase "warm and fuzzy" comes to mind -- had led her to reveal to us that her brother (not there to defend himself) is a bathtub reader who has resorted to using his Amazon Kindle in a ziplock bag.
And she then noted, "I read just a couple of months ago that there's a new waterproof e-reader" -- from another company.
Well, that would be the Aura H2O from a certain other company called Kobo.
And Kobo's always entertaining ceo Michael Tamblyn, chairing the Big Ideas panel, wasn't going to let that one go unflagged. He thanked Headon, turned to the house and said:
Waterproof e-readers are available at a W.H. Smith near you. Kindle users? -- ziplock bags available at Sainsbury's!
And it was amid the laughter and fun of that moment that Tamblyn then called our next Big Idea participant to the stage as "that most powerful and dangerous hybrid, the author-publisher."
Orna Ross was up.
"She writes novels, poems, and the Go Creative! books," Tamblyn told us. "And in 2012, she founded the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), a global association for self-publishing writers. Welcome, Orna."
As the applause subsided, Ross said this:
Did you hear the one about the author who got a one-star review on Goodreads and traveled from the south of England to Scotland where the reviewer lived and staked them out for a while and followed them to the food market -- I know it sounds like a joke but it's actually not a joke -- and hit them over the head with a wine bottle so they had to be hospitalised with a court case pending?
Ross went on to mention two other stories from "the last number of weeks."
She was amply clear on an important point about these widely discussed instances of inappropriate, often abusive behavior "are minority stories...the vast majority of authors and publishers go about their business in completely ethical ways."
Obviously, they're a problem for everyone, however. And, as I related from the #FutureBook14 floor -- and as my Bookseller colleague Sarah Shaffi wrote in her report -- Ross had come prepared to follow up on her work with ALLi member and US-based author Jane Steen with the launch of The Ethical Author Code.
As Shaffi has written, "The initiative is described as a 'practical approach to author ethics, responding directly to months of controversy surrounding author-reviewer relations, in particular.'"
Of particular interest here is the fact that Steen, Ross, and the enabling organisation, ALLi, all see this issue as being one of concern and potential participation for both self-publishing and traditionally publishing authors.
This is a key point, reflective of what many hope is a new understanding of authors' need to work together regardless of their paths to publication. Bad behavior, after all, is available to anyone.
And the digital dynamic puts into the hands of many people today the tools not only of publication but also of marketing, sales, consumer review, publicity...without a moment's training, instruction, or explanation. At any moment a lot of people are working this brave new system without a moment's preparation and without the experience or background to know what is correct and incorrect.
Others may know very well what's wrong and what's right but proceed to do the wrong things because they've seen little in the way of organized, coherent, precise commentary. That ends now, in Ross' delivery to the floor of the conference last week this clear, deeply vetted and edited set of guidelines.
The Ethical Author Code is termed "an author programme facilitated by the Alliance of Independent Authors."
"We wanted to allow those authors who do behave ethically to announce that and say that," Ross said.
"One problem," she told the assembly, "is that book bloggers, reviewers [are] conflating this problem [of unethical author practice] with self-publishing and beginning to say that they could not review self-published books anymore."
Secondly, Ross said, irresponsible behavior can leave the impression that all authors are "crazed people" without normal understandings of good and bad behavior.
"Our Code is pretty basic. There's nothing there that most writers will not be able to align with," Ross said.
To access it, an author simply goes to The Ethical Author Code page, reads the code and downloads a badge that he or she can display on his or her Web site indicating his or her alignment with the principles outlined in the code.
I've got a copy of the code at the end of this post.
Shaffi quotes Ross saying:
Numerous platforms and technologies have brought readers and writers closer together. Ethical Author aims to nurture these ties so that the behaviour of a few will not threaten the democratisation of publishing that has been so invigorating. Rather than being confined to the sidelines of the industry, self-publishing authors can lead the charge in promoting a better book world.
And Ross ended her comments by referring to something another Big Idea presenter, Richard Nash, had said minutes earlier about publishing-as-service, a recurring theme in his work these days. The Ethical Author Code plays directly to that understanding, Ross said, of publishing and the work of authors within it as service, not as manufacturing. She went on:
As publishers, we serve the writing. And as authors, we serve the reader. Ethical Author is a programme for the reader, directed at authors, and perhaps to you, too, as publishers.
Perhaps to the surprise of some, the response to the announcement at the conference of this new initiative has been relatively muted.
I'm told that there's been quite a bit of discussion on ALLi's private Facebook page, some members of the organisation concerned that the badge can be freely downloaded by anyone. This, of course, is true, but the Code isn't meant as something to be enforced -- that's not possible, let alone desirable.
As I reported in August at Thought Catalog, in 8 Issues in Author Ethics, Jane Steen's first words to me -- before a code had been created -- were that author ethics were "insufficiently discussed" in the community of publishing. "I'm calling on ALLi to make the public discussion of author ethics a high priority," she told me, "as a corollary to the Open Up To Indies campaign."
And it would appear that ALLi has risen handsomely to Steen's challenge with the creation of the Code.
Certainly, the arrival of the Code hasn't gone unnoticed. Author Catherine Ryan Hyde, for example, has gone to her blog to announce her approval of the programme and to her own readers. She writes:
I'm sure very few readers are strangers to the fact that "authors behaving badly" incidents have been a sore subject for the last several years. Authors have stalked reviewers and then proudly written articles about it,hit them over the head with wine bottles, bought false reviews or written sock puppet reviews, and mercilessly spammed potential book buyers by email or in social media. And that's a short list of what's going wrong.
Hyde's commentary includes an interesting distinction, too, about self-publishing and traditional authors in this regard.
While everyone is at pains to point out that a traditionally published author can be every bit the creep a self-published author can be, Hyde writes from her own experience:
In the past, publishers have tended to rein authors in. And in decades past, mountains of criticism and rejection have faced authors long before their books ever saw the light of day. We learned to deal with it before hitting the public eye. Now, I'm afraid, some are learning to hear criticism in public.
This is insightful stuff.
And another author, Anne R. Allen, joins Hyde at that post with another angle worth considering: what if publicists are pushing authors to use social media, in particular, to promote themselves unethically?
In her comment, Allen follows one from Steen, writing:
I don't think most readers really want the "author engagement" so beloved of publicists and others with a stake in selling us platform-boosting products. " Unfortunately the publicists and marketing experts are pushing authors to behave in ways that readers find intrusive. Also, even though the worst offenders have been traditionally published, it's always indies that get blamed. So it's great to have a way for self-and small-press pubbed authors to identify themselves as ethical.
Hyde comes back:
I agree that authors are getting lousy advice from publicists and others. Not only is what they're being told to do intrusive (Buy my book! Buy my book! Buy my book!) but it's ineffective. When I see that on a Twitter feed, I do not follow. So we need a higher consciousness. Also, I know a lot of blog reviewers won't touch indie books because of a handful of bad experiences. I guess they feel like they can't sort the ethical from the unethical. Maybe this pledge will help.
Steen joins them:
The unethical few are poisoning the well for the rest of us by ensuring that book bloggers and ultimately readers see authors as a problem rather than what they've always been, the weavers of dreams...Most readers want us to write books and behave ourselves, marketing our books in a way that respects readers and other authors. And that's what most authors do.
And it leads us to some questions I'd like to put to our ever-game #FutureChat contingent on Friday, the overarching query here being: why isn't there more discussion about the new Code?
Questions for #FutureChat
- Do you agree with the nine points of The Ethical Author Code?
- Do you have more points you'd like to have seen covered?
- Would you have expected more pushback than we're seeing so far against the advent of the Code?
- What do you think would be the main reason an author might not want to participate in the programme?
- What do you think would be the most compelling reason to participate in it?
- If you're an author, have you downloaded the badge? If not, why not?
- And per Hyde's good observation, is the issue that self-publishing authors, in particular, are "learning to hear criticism in public" without the buffers of publishing houses and, basically, not always handling it well?
Bring your own questions, thoughts, observations and join us Friday, you'll be most welcome.
And here, in case you haven't read it yet, is the text of the new Code as created by Steen with Ross and ALLi's support:
Guiding principle: Putting the reader first
When I market my books, I put my readers first. This means that I don’t engage in any practices that have the effect of misleading the readers/buyers of my books. I behave professionally online and offline when it comes to my writing life.
I behave with courtesy and respect toward readers, other authors, reviewers and industry professionals such as agents and publishers. If I find myself in disagreement, I focus on issues rather than airing grievances or complaints in the press or online, or engaging in personal attacks of any kind.
I do not hide behind an alias to boost my own sales or damage the sales or reputation of another person. If I adopt a pen name for legitimate reasons, I use it consistently and carefully.
Reviewing and rating books
I do not review or rate my own or another author’s books in any way that misleads or deceives the reader. I am transparent about my relationships with other authors when reviewing their books.
I am transparent about any reciprocal reviewing arrangements, and avoid any practices that result in the reader being deceived.
Reacting to reviews
I do not react to any book review by harassing the reviewer, getting a third party to harass the reviewer, or making any form of intrusive contact with the reviewer. If I’ve been the subject of a personal attack in a review, I respond in a way that is consistent with professional behavior.
I do not promote my books by making false statements about, for example, their position on bestseller lists, or consent to anyone else promoting them for me in a misleading manner.
I know that plagiarism is a serious matter, and I don’t intentionally try to pass off another writer’s words as my own.
In my business dealings as an author, I make every effort to be accurate and prompt with payments and financial calculations. If I make a financial error, I remedy it as soon as it’s brought to my notice.
I take responsibility for how my books are sold and marketed. If I realize anyone is acting against the spirit or letter of this Code on my behalf, I will refer them to this Code and ask them to modify their behavior.
Main image - Shutterstock: AdamSmitty